The growing season may be over, but that doesn't mean you can't continue to enjoy food from your garden. Drying your own fruits, vegetables and herbs is easy and inexpensive using a dehydrator or simple DIY methods like sun-drying and oven-drying. Home-dried foods are packed with flavor, and they can be just as convenient as packaged store-bought food for quick, budget-friendly meal.
Drying food requires very little preparation. Simply pre-cut your garden bounty and blanch your vegetables. Thick items like carrots, strawberries and watermelons should be cut into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Preserve your fruits, vegetables and herbs when they're at peak flavor and quality for best results. Virtually any variety of fruit, and any vegetable that can be blanched and frozen is a good candidate for drying.
Dried food takes up minimal space, and can be stored in screw-top containers in a cool, dark place for about a year. Home food drying can involve a little trial and error, so keep an eye on stored goods for a few days after drying and toss any items that show signs of spoilage.
The key to drying foods is to remove moisture as quickly as possible at a temperature that will maintain the flavor, color and texture of the food. Here are three methods that are commonly used to dry food at home.
This method is used for herbs rather than fruits and vegetables, which require heat. Pick your herbs in the morning, when the oils in the leaves will be at their peak, and tie them in bunches with string. Hang the herb bundles to dry in a cool, dark location with good ventilation. Once they're dry, hold each bundle by the end and strip the leaves from the bundles in a downward stroking motion. Store in screw-top jars, or wrap tightly and put in the freezer.
Warm, arid climates like the Southwest region of the United States offer a zero-energy food drying solution: the power of the sun. For this ancient method of food preservation, you simply lay foods on paper-lined trays or cloth-covered wooden frames and leave them in the sun to dry, turning occasionally. In humid locales like the Southeast, place the trays in a solar dryer or a vented, glass-covered box. If rain threatens, finish drying your food in the oven.
Drying food can be as simple as placing your produce on oven racks with at least three inches of space between each piece, setting the temperature at 160 degrees and leaving the door cracked about half an inch. Depending on the type of food that you're drying, it'll take about four and a half hours, rotating the racks 3-4 times.
Commercial dehydrators are small electrical appliances that use very little energy to circulate warm air. They're available in everything from simple old-fashioned wooden racks to complex, expandable free-standing dehydrators that can dry lots of food at once.